GREEN BAY – When his longtime teammate called that morning in March, Davante Adams couldn’t believe what he heard. “Shocked,” he said, was his reaction.
Nobody saw Jordy Nelson’s release coming this spring. Not Green Bay Packers fans. Not their quarterback. Not the receiver who’d learned from him the past four seasons.
Nelson, like he did with Aaron Rodgers, delivered the news to Adams directly over the phone. They reminisced some, but their conversation soon turned to business. If Adams was surprised to learn they would no longer share an offense, Nelson’s next question was also unexpected.
“So what’s up with Cali?” Nelson asked.
Nelson signed with the Oakland Raiders two days after the Packers released him. His first-ever free agency was expedited with an assist from Adams. A Palo Alto, Calif., native, Adams knows the area well. “He’s actually a pretty close neighbor to my house in California now,” Adams said.
In Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, Adams knew his former teammate would be in good hands.
Adams caught passes from Carr for two seasons at Fresno State. Together, they formed one of college football’s best quarterback-receiver tandems. So Adams told Nelson northern California was just fine, and oh by the way, there’s a pretty good quarterback out there, too.
Then, Adams said, he followed up when Nelson took his visit to Oakland, facilitating a 5 1/2-hour steakhouse dinner with Nelson and Carr.
“I was trying to get them acquainted,” Adams said, “because I was pushing for it. Because if you are going to be anywhere, I want you to be with my old quarterback because I trust him, I know how he is. Great match for him. He was real excited about it.
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“From what I heard from the waiter, before I got there, things were a little different. It was a little, just because they didn't really know each other yet. Then I came in, worked my magic, and now he signed. It was good. I'm excited for him.”
To Adams, helping Nelson transition to his next team was the least he could do. Adams credits Nelson for helping him become a pro, both on and off the field. With Nelson gone, he has found himself repeating much of the wisdom he heard in his first couple years.
On the field, Adams’ role won’t change much. He already started his transition to being the Packers' No. 1 receiver in 2017. As the season progressed, opponents began turning their coverage focus away from Nelson, designing their defenses to stop Adams.
Rodgers suggested Adams might get more snaps inside this fall, alternating between the perimeter and slot much like Nelson did the past couple years. Regardless of where he runs routes, the Packers are confident Adams will provide top-level production. After catching 997 yards in 2016, Adams’ season could’ve derailed in the wake of Rodgers’ broken collarbone last fall. Instead, Adams became backup Brett Hundley’s primary receiver.
Adams finished 2017 with 74 catches for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl as an alternate replacing injured Julio Jones.
Now, Adams figures to establish himself as Rodgers’ clear, top target, a designation that might have remained murky had Nelson stayed. After signing a four-year, $58 million extension in December, the 25-year-old Adams has a considerably high ceiling. Rodgers knows Adams also will face high external expectations.
“He’s going to be looked at as more of the go-to guy outside the building,” Rodgers said. “Naturally, that would probably be the progression for fans to think that way, but I throw it to the open guy. He happens to be open a lot. So I’m sure he’s going to get a lot of opportunities to continue to be that guy.
“He’s just got to continue to improve on what he’s done every year. He’s gotten better every year. If he can play 16 games, he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.”
Adams might have as big of a contribution off the field. The Packers need Adams to lead their receiving group, a role he only started dabbling in last season.
The Packers' long-held, draft-and-develop approach cultivated a locker room where wisdom was passed down by generations. Receiver isn’t the only segment of the roster where direct lineages can be traced. When cornerback Tramon Williams had his first season with the Packers in 2006, Charles Woodson led the position. Now Williams is back at age 35, and it’s his time to shepherd a trio of first- and second-year corners in Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson and Kevin King.
Similarly, Nelson shared an offense with Donald Driver for his first five seasons. After Driver retired in 2012, Nelson was left to lead the receiving group. It’s a role Adams now assumes in his fifth season (along with eighth-year veteran Randall Cobb), tasked with mentoring rookies J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown.
“I feel like I’m an old man sometimes, ‘Ah, I need to stop. I’m not a Year 12 vet,’” Adams said. “But at the same time, when you’re the second-oldest guy in the room, they look to you for that type of stuff. So it’s not a problem for me at all to step up.”
Adams said he wants to pick up where Nelson left off. He’s already started with his younger teammates in these OTAs, giving them as much information as he can. Adams thinks he has “a lot to offer” young receivers, specifically with how he overcame on-field struggles early in his career to eventually become a true No. 1.
Adams said he’s quick to use his personal journey as an example. He’s also got a reservoir of wisdom he once learned from Nelson, things he can now pass down the line.
“Jordy’s the biggest epitome of a pro that you can think of,” Adams said. “You see what he’s done in the Green Bay community, let alone for the football team. I feel like (football is) secondary. He showed you how to do it. He showed you how to work, he showed you how to watch film, and just all the small things that elevate you from being a good player to a great player.”